I fell in love with the Balkans, I hope they love me too

E. Mr. Grigorios Vasilokonstandakis was appointed Ambassador of Greece to Bulgaria in 2016. But his diplomatic career began 30 years ago - in 1986, when he joined the Diplomatic Service of the Central Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs /MFA/ in Athens. From 1992 to 1996 he was consul at the Consulate General of Greece in Istanbul. Later he was appointed to the Embassy of Greece in Paris /1996-2000/. From 2002 to 2005 he worked at the International Secretariat of NATO /DPAO/ in Brussels, where he was responsible for the defense cooperation in Southeast Europe. From 2005 to 2008 he was successively deputy director and director of "Management of bilateral relations with the US and Canada" in the Central Office of the MFA. Then he was a General Consul in Cairo /2008 to 2010/. In 2013, he was accredited as Ambassador of Greece in Romania.

For his merits, H. E. Mr. Gregorios Vasilokonstandakis was awarded a number of accolades, including: Legion of Honour (France), Commander of the Cross of St. Mark (Order of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Alexandria), Commander of the Cross of St. Catherine (Order of the Monastery "Saint Catherine " in the Sinai), Great commander of the Order of the Phoenix (Greece).

He is married to Paraskevi Mantziara and is the father of a 27-year-old son.

- Your Excellency, Bulgaria and Greece are traditionally good economic partners. How did the crisis in your country in recent years affect our bilateral economic relations?

- Economic relations between the two countries are at a really good level. The volume of bilateral trade amounted to 2 billion and 840 million euros and Greece occupies the fourth place in the ranking of foreign investors with 2.39 billion euros at the end of 2015. So, although there has been some decline in Greek investments in Bulgaria, which is likely to be temporary, their volume continues to be significant. Important is the fact that Greek companies in your country provide approximately 60,000 jobs. Last but not least, despite the economic crisis, remittances of Bulgarians working in the country amounted to more than 100 million BGN last year, this indicator ranked Greece in the third place, immediately after the big countries like the US and Spain. Of course, the economic relations did not stop there. Thousands of Greeks visit the winter resorts of Bulgaria and reverse - thousands of Bulgarians go to the Greek sea in the summer. My assessment is that there is great potential to increase the bilateral trade, especially in the field of food, construction, transport and infrastructure. I intend to focus on the efforts to expand bilateral trade, because I think now is the right time and we have the right conditions for it. It is also important to emphasize that at the moment Greece offers outstanding investment opportunities for those who want to use its strategic geographic location, its highly specialized workforce, the acceptable level of labor costs, and with regard to Bulgaria - its proximity and the mutual acquaintance between the two nations. The Embassy of Greece is available to the Bulgarians who want to invest in our country and is ready to provide any support.

- What are the still untapped opportunities for the development of bilateral relations?

- As already noted, cooperation between Greece and Bulgaria is at an extremely high level and expands in many areas. I would say that our bilateral relations are an example of cooperation for the entire region. In reality, there is no area where the available opportunities are not used. Political cooperation, economic relations, trade, energy and tourism are among the most important sectors of common interest. We cooperate at a regional institutional level as well - for example within the SEECP and the BSEC. We cooperate in various regional quadrilateral formats. In one hand, along with FYROM and Albania, we have the primary purpose of addressing the refugee wave, transnational crime and other common problems, and on the other hand, along with Croatia and Romania we strive for informal coordination in possible common actions within the EU, as we often maintain common positions at a European level. For example, Greece strongly supports the desire of Bulgaria to join the Schengen area.

On a good level is also the police cooperation between the two countries by organizing joint police patrols in Greek resorts in summer and in the Bulgarian ski centers in winter. An important step is the recent opening of the Three-parted contact center between Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey at "Kapitan Andreevo" frontier post, which aims at the exchange of information in the fight against terrorism and organized crime.

Of great importance is the bilateral cooperation in the energy sector – the construction of the interconnector pipeline and the project for a floating terminal for liquefied natural gas to Alexandroupolis.

The Greek-Bulgarian border cooperation is another example of interaction that enables communities on both sides of the border to cooperate mutually in the field of economic development. But not only in the economic field. Because apart from the trade, economic contacts and opportunities offered by the EU programs for cross-border cooperation such as INTERREG, also develop the bilateral cooperation at the level of local government bodies, police and customs authorities and in the field of infrastructure, environment, water management and tourism.

The Council for high level cooperation between the governments of Greece and Bulgaria regularly meets in both countries to confirm the progress and plan further steps. The last third in a row Council meeting was held in Sofia in the summer of 2016 and was attended by the two prime ministers and most members of the two governments. In conclusion, I want to add that there can always be room for improvement and expansion of cooperation. For example, the message that gave the two Prime Ministers in the framework of the mentioned Council meeting was to build a rail link between Alexandroupolis and Bourgas. The implementation of the project for a railway line between the two cities will give further impetus to the economic development of both countries and the development of relations between the citizens of both regions near the border.

- How far did the project for gas connector between Greece and Bulgaria go?

- The interconnection gas pipeline between Greece and Bulgaria is one of the most important projects between the two countries, which is of European interest, and perhaps of international importance. During the second phase of market testing, which took place in December last year, five binding offers for booking capacity of the pipeline were submitted. The capacity of the pipeline that was proposed during the second phase of market testing amounts to 2.7 bcm. year, of which 1.57 billion were retained or 58%. This shows the interest of the companies in the project pipeline. It is envisaged that the actual construction of the gas pipeline between Greece and Bulgaria will begin in 2017 and will be completed by the late 2018 or early 2019, expectations are for it to be put into operation in 2020.

- The increase in prices in Greece and the tax burden of the tourist companies and hotels, will that lead into increased costs for Bulgarian tourists?

- Greece is among the 15 most popular and attractive tourist destinations worldwide. 2016 was another record year for our tourism. By applying the new policy on tourism, which immediately gave its results, we achieved a record number of foreign tourists - 27 million.

Bulgarians like to visit Greek resorts, and enjoy the realities of a unique, high quality and affordable tourist destination. However, it is the same with the Greeks, who regularly come every year to the mountains of Bulgaria to ski. After all, the friendly feelings between the two peoples are so strong that when both are in the land of the others, they feel at home. We entertain with the same pleasure and share common cultural values. I believe that prices of tourist services will not be affected significantly by small increases in some taxes and generally it should be the same as last year. However, quite a few entrepreneurs from the Greek tourism sector consider mitigating these small increases by reducing profit margins.

- What important events to expect in the bilateral relations in 2017?

- I think this year will be exceptional for our bilateral relations as there is a strong political will on both sides for greater cooperation and greater convergence. These things, contrary to what someone might have thought, will not get affected by the pre-election period in Bulgaria. Both our institutional cooperation and the seeking of new economic opportunities continue with the same undiminished pace. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Greece is on the side of Bulgaria in the ongoing efforts of your country for the successful preparation of the rotating presidency of the EU Council in the first half of 2018. I am sure that these efforts will give a result, as the Bulgarian institutions attach particular importance to them. Of course, the Greek-Bulgarian political contacts will continue to be intense, as every year, and close cooperation on issues of pan-European and regional interest will increase for sure. You know, I often say that the Greek-Bulgarian relations are so vast and profound that their development has only one direction - always ahead!

- Your Excellency, what does it feel like being an ambassador to a neighboring country of Greece?

- I actually "discovered" the Balkans at the beginning of the century, and since then I have not gone far from them. I fell in love with them and I believe they love me. Specifically for working in a neighboring country - for me it is of a special personal and professional interest. Especially when it comes to a friendly and close to the Greek state- as is Bulgaria. You can experience many things in common that both people share on a cultural and everyday life- level. Because the two neighboring nations have the ability to build relationships with each other faster than it goes on a political level.

- How do you feel in Bulgaria compared to other Balkan countries where you have worked?

- For Greece, Bulgaria is a country which presents an immediate interest. I would say that the bilateral Greek-Bulgarian relations are of strategic importance for both countries, and therefore they develop stably and in perspective. This determines the content of the work of an Ambassador. The Greek Ambassador in Bulgaria can combine constructive work with the pleasant sensation, which is also an incentive that is extremely well received. Of course, the fact that Greece and Bulgaria have common border, the areas of cooperation, but also the mutual influences between the two countries are many and significant.

- How can the modern diplomat be distinguished from his predecessors?

- The modern diplomat is called upon to play a more complex and demanding role in a constantly changing international environment. Today he has to represent his country not only to government officials and institutions, but also to care for the public presence. While his public activity shall be balanced so that through it he can represent his country, he also should develop relations with the country where he is accredited.

- If we transfer the attention from diplomacy to the managerial activity, I would like to ask you what result do the the efforts of the Greek government give in order to resolve the debt crisis and stimulate the economy?

- The government's efforts really began to bear fruit. Recently the European Stability Mechanism approved medium-term measures to alleviate the Greek debt, providing for a reduction of it by 20% by 2060, and reduce the country's needs for funding by 5% over the same period. Moreover, the Greek economy is starting to move. Only a few days ago official statistics were released on last year. The growth of the economy amounts to 0.3%. The budget of Greece also registered primary surplus of the amount of 4.39 billion euro in 2016. For 2017 the Bank of Greece foresees growth of 2.5%, as forecasts are that it will accelerate to 3% in 2018 and 2019. Last but not least, after the expected successful conclusion of the assessment of the current rescue program we expect to gain back access to additional sources of funding by joining the program of quantitative easing from the European Central Bank.

- A severe problem for Greece and Bulgaria is the migration of refugees from Asia and Africa. Does the EU help financially and in other ways the Greek authorities in order to deal with these consequences of this phenomenon?

- Greece, despite the considerable difficulties caused by the sudden arrival of thousands of desperate people, demonstrated in the most humane way that true solidarity with refugees is still among the pillars of our common civilization. However, when this refugee flow occurs during the economic crisis and the country is making tremendous efforts to receive these people and to deal with the problem, which was not caused by us, then this country is the first to be confronted with the consequences. In these conditions, among the objectives of the Greek State are the protection of the rights of the refugees and migrants who are in its territory, the provision of decent shelter and condemnation of discrimination against them. We believe that the agreement between the EU and Turkey represents a significant step towards addressing this problem. Our country supports the full implementation of this agreement.

- What do you expect from the EU?

- From the EU we expect compliance with its commitments to the relocation of 30,000 refugees from Greece to other Member States, sending specialized staff for examining applications for asylum and creating European mechanism for returning to the country of origin the people, not entitled to asylum. Speaking for relocation until now just over 3,000 people have been displaced and ready for the procedures are around 7000, but the overall procedures are late. As for specialized personnel for examining applications for asylum, the EU promised 400 people, but only a few dozens have arrived and work.

We should not forget that the return of migrants to Turkey must be done according to the rules of the international law. The competent committees consider individually tens of thousands of asylum applications. This, of course, requires time and no one can accuse someone else for delay when it comes to compliance with our international obligations. We must not forget that when it comes to such a significant problem, words like solidarity "on condition" or "flexible" solidarity have no meaning. In order to have a result, solidarity must be absolute and real, of course, in the frames of and in accordance to the commitment of everyone. Finally, I think it is important to give thanks to the competent Bulgarian authorities who cooperate effectively with the relevant Greek authorities on any topic which concerns dealing with the refugee and migrant issue.

- Is there a danger for the Balkan countries to become a ghetto for refugees?

- This perspective can and should be avoided by the full implementation of the arrangements in several European Council meetings which concern the relocation of refugees and return of migrants. On the other hand, as you know, it was recently discussed the revision of Dublin II, which refers to the procedures for asylum and obligations of the parties who first meet people who want asylum. Greece has certain positions for the "overloading" of the Member States who first accepted asylum-seekers; it has expressed them in relevant discussions. Returns of refugees to Greece are not expected, as the country now covers the respective quotas, as it has sheltered around 62,000 refugees.

The material is provided by "Standard" newspaper - www.standartnews.com.